According to Homer’s “Odyssey”, it is the rebel Titan Atlas that “supports the great columns that separate earth and sky” – as a terrible punishment for his attempted attack on Mount Olympus. It was Zeus’s decision: “And Atlas through hard constraint upholds the wide heaven with unwearying head and arms […] for this lot wise Zeus assigned to him” (Hesiod, “Theogony”).
The Farnese Atlas, currently in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, bows under the incredible, eternal strain to which his muscles are visibly subjected. The globe he holds is an ancient representation of the sky and constellations, most likely inspired by the observations made by Hipparchus of Nicaea, who lived in the 2nd century BC and was the greatest astronomer in antiquity.
The marble statue is 185 centimeters tall (approximately seven feet) and is thought to date back to the 2nd century BC, although it probably was inspired by an older original. It is part of the Farnese Collection, which includes various sculptures that were found in Rome in the Baths of Caracalla in the mid-16th century, then brought to Naples at the end of the 18th century as part of the inheritance of the King of Spain, Charles III, son of the last member of the Farnese family, Elisabeth.